The official Israeli government body that accredits journalists has just been honored by the country’s PR association for enhancing Israel’s image abroad. Anyone who values an independent and free press should be alarmed.
The government bureau responsible for accrediting journalists in Israel was honored last month by Israel’s association of public relations professionals for its work promoting government propaganda, known cordially as “hasbara,” or “public diplomacy.” The Government Press Office, which is a division of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, was presented the certificate of appreciation at the Israel Public Relations Association’s annual “Roaring Lion” awards ceremony.
In an announcement published on the GPO’s website (Hebrew), the press accreditation body cites its own “innovative and creative actions to advance Israeli hasbara and presenting ‘the whole picture of Israel.’” The GPO announcement goes on to cite its “professional and courteous service” vis-à-vis the foreign press corps in Israel, along with “dealing with coverage biased against the State of Israel,” adding praise for its work “initiating articles that present a face of Israel beyond the conflict.”
Anyone who values an independent and free press should be alarmed that the official state body that accredits journalists, and without whose permission foreign journalists cannot work in Israel, is being honored for influencing journalistic coverage. Along with a Military Censor that at-least-partially redacts one in five articles that cross its desk, and out-of-control judicial gag orders that have tripled in recent years, the GPO is just one of several ways the Israeli government is able to influence what information is reported, how it is reported, and who can report it.
As I wrote last year:
Carrying a GPO card gives journalists access to official events, the scenes of newsworthy incidents, is often a condition for cooperation from official spokespeople, and offers protection from arrest while covering protests. In other words, government accreditation makes reporting much safer and more effective. (Foreign journalists must have the GPO’s endorsement in order to even receive a visa to work in Israel.)
But by giving itself the power to decide who is a legitimate journalist, the GPO (which operates as part of the Prime Minister’s Office) also inherently gets to decide who is not a legitimate journalist. And as with any decision made by government bureaucrats subordinate to politicians, such decisions can at times be driven by political considerations.
That has been true in the past and under the current government. It is relatively common for journalists to have to hire lawyers in order to secure and renew their accreditations. Earlier this month Government Press Office director Nitzan Chen said he will considering revoking the press credentials of journalists who pen articles carrying headlines not to his liking.
But the GPO is not only an office charged with accrediting and liaising with journalists. It is also a political propaganda organ of the Israeli government. According to a December 2014 Knesset report on official hasbara (propaganda) efforts, “The GPO tries to promote the State of Israel’s hasbara in its work with the foreign press,” an effort on which it spent NIS 36.5 million between 2010 and 2014.
One can only imagine the risks of political intervention and conflict of interest when a government body charged with disseminating propaganda is also responsible for accrediting journalists who might happen to be critical of state policy.
Since then, we have reported on how the GPO has in fact revoked the accreditation of at least one foreign journalist because of his negative coverage of Israeli policy, and internal emails even went so far as to cite his tweeting of +972 Magazine articles in justifying its actions. The journalist, Derk Walters, who had been working in Israel/Palestine for three years, was unable to continue working in the country after losing his government accreditation.
More recently was the public campaign threatening to revoke the accreditation of an Al Jazeera journalist, which came after demands by government ministers to shut down the outlet’s operations in Israel. After holding a closed hearing, details of which the GPO published in a press release, the decision to revoke his accreditation was reversed. Weeks later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself ordered the GPO director to dis-invite a senior Al Jazeera journalist from a GPO event on the topic of journalistic freedom in Israel.
The conflict of interest inherent in having the same body which decides who may work as a journalist also being charged with advancing the propaganda aims of the government it serves, is no long theoretical. It is time to disband the GPO entirely, or give it the type of autonomy that can ensure it is not subject to political influence, along with removing any mandate it has beyond accreditation of and support for journalists.